Jeez, this is the second time in a few months that I’ve watched two current 4:3 movies in a row. I suppose this one justifies it with the VHS tape tie-in (though what can justify the VHS tapes), and The Lighthouse is set on a lighthouse so I’ll allow a taller ratio… Nightingale maybe just for the period setting, overall the weakest 4:3 justification of the bunch, and I just dug the look of The Mountain so it can take whatever ratio it wants. D’Ambrose said that he made each of his shorts to work out a different filmmaking problem, and it seems like he’s still working things out – he’s almost got a movie, but this felt more like an exercise. Of course then I watched the credits and changed my tune; this is obviously the latest high masterpiece from savvy executive producer Brandon Bentley.

Keith (left) with the disappeared David (Bingham Bryant of Spiral Jetty):

Somebody Up There Likes Me star Keith Poulson meets David, who is writing about a late, controversial political theorist, and gives Keith a job itemizing the videotapes from the theorist’s travels and describing their contents. “I rarely saw anyone in any of these recordings. Their importance was unclear.”

There’s a riot and murder or two, but the movie describes these in documents, maintaining its quiet, measured tone in the main action. A wordless art gallery scene worked for me, the talky panel on translation did not. “Do you think this is uninteresting?” was the first line I heard upon resuming the movie, after pausing to see if anything was happening in the news (D’Ambrose told Filmmaker that scene died in Berlin and he hoped the NYC in-crowd would find it funnier). On the plus side: the great Tallie Medel (The Unspeakable Act).

Style quirks: studio-audience applause over the first shots of actors… blackouts between scenes are video-green… small roles are filled out with a bunch of film critics I read… of course lotta close-ups on documents. Phil Coldiron does not appear, but wrote a major Cinema Scope article on D’Ambrose, which I can only partly follow.

Vadim Rizov:

Consistently clipped editing keeps the tone fluid: humor is in the cuts, and the film is never needlessly dour, deliberately refusing to dutifully find its way to a neatly summarizable Statement About The Zeitgeist.

D’Ambrose:

I don’t think of Todd and Karen and most of the characters as “intellectuals” – I can’t take them seriously as thinkers, I think of them as part of a milieu … I’m grateful I didn’t end up calling the movie The Millennials, which was the original title.

I liked Ricky’s Spiral Jetty and his comment about using the shorts to work out ideas before shooting his first feature, so I contributed to the feature’s kickstarter last year and got a bunch more shorts as thanks.


The Stranger (2011)

This one tells a more dramatically straightforward story (and is more of a comedy) than the other three. Wide b/w, divided into chapters, with some nice Hungarian music and heavy droning narration.

“I’m not ideologically complicit about anything. I read Zizek.” Sarah-Doe Osborne and her man Michael Wetherbee are students who just moved into the perfect new apartment. They humor a stranger who asks to stay with them, then quickly convinces them to leave their lives behind and join him. “He said that moving and living with him would turn us into more admirable and interesting people.” They quit their jobs, drop their classes, tear up all their issues of The Nation and Film Comment, then there’s a quite long montage of city scenery, and the stranger never returns.


Pilgrims (2013)

Wetherbee is back as narrator, but now he’s a friend of the couple from The Stranger, who get mentioned. He’s stuck inside with health problems as protests rage outside, visited by a couple of friends and a priest. This one’s in color, dividing scenes with handwritten diary entries (some nice German music). No narration over the final unreadable entry, then he’s passed out on the ground, followed by still shots of the apartment (echoing the city scenes from the end of the previous short – these are playing well as a group).


Six Cents in the Pocket (2015)

Wetherbee in color again, but female narration – letters from Risa, whose apartment he’s staying in while she’s on vacation. Wetherbee takes a picture from the house to get reframed, goes to the movies and coffee shop and bookstore, gets stood up by dark-haired Ananda, runs short on cash (L’Argent-referencing transaction shots), visits Risa’s sister (hey it’s someone I’ve seen before, The Unspeakable Act star Tallie Medel) then learns Risa isn’t going to make it home (“460 on jet die in Queens crash”). Some nice… Italian music? Another city montage, and this one and Pilgrims both feature Wetherbee doing his own thing in an apartment while there’s chaos in the city outside. The list of thanks in the closing credits add a new familiar name with each film: Fendt, Piñeiro, Sallitt.

A Brief History of Princess X (2016, Gabriel Abrantes)

“Hey guys, my name is Gabriel Abrantes and I’m the director of this little six-minute film” – probably the first movie I’ve seen with director’s commentary as the main audio. It’s the story of Princess X, the sculpture and the subject, with playful voiceover: the characters’ mute dialogue in semi-sync with Abrantes, the director laughing at the actions and commenting on the filmmaking. “Here we changed his costume so it would seem like time was passing. He just ended up looking like Fidel Castro.”

M. Sicinski:

Princess X is undoubtedly a smart little film, and Abrantes wears his erudition lightly, possibly a little too much so. But in such a small space, he accomplishes several feats — things too modest to call “impressive,” per se, so let’s label them nifty. The film brings out the neurosis and below-the-belt impulses of modernism without turning it into a punchline, making “modern art” some sort of con. Abrantes follows tangents like a champ, following through when, for instance, our Spin the Phallus game lands us on Freud. But above all, he generates an uncanny sense of Victorian human puppetry from his performers, especially Joana Barrios as Marie Bonaparte. We find ourselves inside a weird, high-speed hybrid film, equal parts Guy Maddin and Raoul Ruiz. It’s something special.

Princess X (the marble version?) premiered in 1917 in the same show as Duchamp’s urinal, which grabbed all the headlines, postponing Brancusi’s own controversy until 1920, when the bronze version was censored in Paris. The marble is on display 200 yards from my office, and I visit it some afternoons.


Checked out Festivalscope for the first time with these next couple of shorts… great site, going to have to keep an eye on its new releases.


As Without So Within (2016, Manuela de Laborde)

I think it’s closeups on planetary stone objects. Sometimes we go too close, and the film is overrun with low-framerate grain, and sometimes we pull back with minor Lemony light changes. Soft static on the soundtrack, annoying. Some double exposures toward the middle. I liked the lighting, at least.

Played ND/NF 2017 and Toronto before that. Knew I’d heard about this somewhere – turns out it got six whole pages in Cinema Scope.

De Laborde:

Although I didn’t want to make a film that’s about outer space per se, I do like the metaphor, and also the relation that it suggests between cinema and the theatre. We go into this neutral non-space and we have to make sense of these self-contained universes, with their own balance and rules and life of their own, which works according to a language or order that was born from these materials, and yet they are also just these floating bodies in the middle of a dark, empty room.


Spiral Jetty (2017, Ricky D’Ambrose)

Male narrator gets job working for the daughter of recently deceased, celebrated psychologist Kurt Blumenthal, documenting his papers and tapes. Narrator is the last person to get to see the full collection before the daughter and her conductor husband (played by n+1’s film critic) suppress and destroy certain things (such as “the papers from the maoists”) before it’s all sold to a university. The short premiered just a week before I watched it online, does some things I like with editing and sound, and has an interesting focus on objects (news articles, handwritten notes, photographs). Dan Sallitt gets thanked in this film and Ben Rivers in the previous one, and both of these connections make sense to me.

In a Brooklyn Magazine interview, D’Ambrose reveals that his family’s own home movies substituted for Blumenthal’s. He’s working on a feature called Notes on an Appearance. “The shorts exist because the feature existed before them: each short was an attempt to solve certain aesthetic and conceptual problems that I’ve been thinking about ever since I started writing An Appearance.”


Arm, Flexion, Extension (2011, Bea Haut)

A white wall is painted black from a few tripod setups, while light shapes flicker across the “haphazardly hand processed 16mm film” over the sound of projector noise. On International Women’s Day, Michael Sicinski posted links to seventy female filmmakers’ Vimeo pages and I picked this one at random… the idea was to watch a bunch more, but I haven’t gotten to that yet, just cataloguing them for later.


Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises (1999, David Gatten)

Bible pages and words and letters flash and scroll past, with various levels of enlargement and exposure and opacity and speed, flickering by in different ways, maybe according to the Moxon quote before each section. I was annoyed when I realized it would be all silent text on screen, then I improved things by playing the Monotonprodukt album, against the Wishes and Intentions of the filmmaker. He probably also didn’t intend for me to watch a VHS transfer on an HDTV, or to pause the movie halfway through because my mom called, but that’s life in this 21st Century.

Sicinski in Cinema Scope:

Portions of the Biblical texts are affixed to the film, lifted from their source with cellophane tape after Gatten has boiled the books. We see the ink, hanging together in atomic word-forms like nervous constellations, mottled and wavering in thickness. The Word, indeed, is made flesh.


Secret History of the Dividing Line (2002, David Gatten)

The first five minutes were fun, flipping through a timeline of events, pausing on the biographical details of William Byrd and his expedition to determine the border between Virginia and North Carolina (very Lost City of Z), and this time I knew to start the Monotonprodukt album right away. But then a scroll of the two versions of the Dividing Line publication take over the screen, with a vertical-mask Dividing Line switching between them… this part was mostly unreadable in my SD copy. The text ends and the screen flickers and lights up with horizontal noise patterns, often weirdly in sync with my music.

If I’m reading a Wexner Center program correctly, this is part one and Moxon’s is part three of the same project (“the Byrd films”). Michael Sicinski’s article on Gatten in Cinema Scope 49 is the best, and makes me want to seek out more by Gatten, even though I’ve only found these subpar video copies so far.


A Train Arrives at the Station (2016, Thom Andersen)

Clips from train scenes in movies, using their own sound, including some of my favorite movies (Shanghai Express, Dead Man) and memorable scenes (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). Feels like this was meant to go with a speech or discussion of some sort, because otherwise I don’t see the point of it… I mean, I like trains in film as much as the next guy, so it’s enjoyable at least.

News From Home, perhaps? No source credits, so I can’t be sure.


From The Drain (1967, David Cronenberg)

A comedy sketch in a bathtub, scored with Renaissance acoustic guitar, Hat Guy doing his exasperated theater-guy voice while Glasses Guy mutely grins at him. References to “the war” and a veteran’s center, where the two either work or are patients, then Glasses guy warns of murderous tendrils coming from the drain, and is eventually strangled by them (or a stop-motion phone cord). It’s silly, and surprisingly not the only Cronenberg movie to be shot entirely in a bathroom, but he does an effectively strange thing, swapping positions of the two guys in the tub but acting like it’s normal continuity cutting.